Navigant Research Blog

High-Strength Steel or Aluminum for Vehicle Body Parts: That Is the Question

— August 10, 2015

In a presentation to the 2015 CAR Management Briefing Seminars, Eric Petersen, the vice president of research and innovation at AK Steel, outlined his plans to produce the next generation of high-strength steel. He was confident that new innovations from steel suppliers will prevent the loss of more market share to aluminum. As Petersen demonstrates, Ford’s decision to convert its F-150 to all-aluminum has prompted steel suppliers to get creative.

However, there are a lot of things to consider when choosing a material for manufacture of vehicle components. Current vehicle bodies and closures are made primarily of sheet metal, although carbon and glass fiber-reinforced plastic are also used. Original equipment manufacturer (OEM) designers and engineers have to consider both the requirements of the finished vehicle and the ability to manufacture it efficiently.

Modern production lines depend on assembly techniques that can be automated, and fixing parts together must use a process that can be done by robots both for speed and repetition. Depending on the material, this may involve spot welding, seam welding, rivets, bolts, glue, etc. If production facilities are already equipped with a certain capability, changing to a material that needs a different joining process might require a major investment, which may only be practical when the existing equipment is reaching the end of its useful life.

Part manufacture is another consideration. Many body parts have complex shapes. If they are stamped and need a deep draw, then there may be a limit on how thin the material can be. Steel that is developed to have high strength has a higher yield stress than ordinary mild steel, which is a benefit in the finished article to absorb loads, but makes it harder to form during manufacture. Other lightweight materials such as magnesium have poor formability for body panels but can be cast for uses such as the instrument panel beam in the 2015 Ford Mustang. Some materials are treated after shaping to make them harder, but that also adds cost. Different materials also require different post-manufacture treatments to prevent corrosion.

Once a part is manufactured and assembled, it has to meet various performance specifications. A vehicle body structure has to be stiff in torsion and bending, cope with fatigue loading at load points, handle rollover and side impact loads, and absorb crash energy while keeping occupants safe. In addition to meeting these structural goals, overall vehicle fuel efficiency targets mean that keeping the weight low is now critical. And, as always, there is the ever-present need to keep costs as low as possible.

No Silver Bullet

Just as with powertrains, there is no silver bullet material that is ideal for every application. Material suppliers should recognize the big-picture approach of the automotive manufacturers, which involves reducing the number of platforms to increase volume of many parts and to streamline manufacturing processes. OEMs are increasingly using multi-disciplinary optimization for part design, which considers a wide range of factors including manufacturability, assembly, structural performance, weight, functionality, and overall cost.

Future vehicles are more likely to be made from a variety of materials than to stick with one or shift entirely to another. Material suppliers should consider how to make parts with their products that not only perform better than the competition at lower cost, but also integrate easily into existing platforms.


FAA Regulations Continue to Limit Drone Deployments at U.S. Utilities

— August 10, 2015

Popular media is highlighting the controversy around unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs)/drones in public airspace, as these devices are disrupting scheduled airline flight patterns near major airports, interfering with planes in wildfire zones, and even interfering with privacy concerns. Yet, the drive to establish commercial uses for drone technology is proceeding at a rapid pace. Companies like Amazon are seeking airspace regulations that establish corridors for commercial drone-based delivery applications. At the same time, transmission and distribution (T&D) operators and utilities across the globe are beginning to look toward UAVs to reduce costs, improve safety, and increase reliability and response times across their T&D systems. These new utility solutions include major operations such as overhead visual transmission line maintenance inspections, T&D storm damage assessment and outage management/response, substation inspection, asset monitoring and condition maintenance, and vegetation management.

Limited Takeoff

While all these applications and use cases sound like ideal methods for utilities to improve their operations and reduce their costs, there are some significant issues that are bringing the adoption of new T&D procedures to a virtual crawl. The typical utility today utilizes line crews and sometimes helicopters to complete T&D line inspections and maintenance, semi-rapidly do storm damage assessments, update asset management systems, and make decisions on vegetation management. As you can imagine, these approaches are cost-intensive, with line crews heading out on search and locate assignments and helicopters being deployed at costs of up to $1,500 per hour.

Many forward-looking utilities are looking at both multi-rotor and fixed-wing UAVs to not only reduce maintenance and operations (M&O) inspection and vegetation management costs, but also improve response times during outages caused by major storms and other events. Although these savings can be significant, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulatory hurdles and permit and flight approval processes create barriers to this market literally taking off. Under current regulations, the FAA is granting limited-scale pilot project permits for a small number of U.S. utilities, including but not limited to San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E), ComEd, Duke, Xcel, and Florida Power & Light Company (FPL). Pilot projects are typically limited to small regions or T&D training facilities. Like Amazon’s proposal that commercial UAV flight corridors be established for delivery services, T&D utilities will need the same, allowing companies to fly drones over T&D systems for both planned M&O and storm damage assessments necessary for outage restoration. In addition, the flight approval process for UAVs must be streamlined, as flight plans currently need to be filed with the FAA 72 hours earlier, clearly precluding timely storm assessment and outage restoration responses. These hurdles must be addressed for the UAV market with T&D utilities to take off over the next 10 years.

Emerging Promise

A number of UAV companies are already positioning themselves for the expansion of this market, including startups like Google-funded Skycatch and an interesting company in Colorado, FLōT Systems. The latter has established key partnerships with both inspection services companies and analytics software providers.

I’m currently writing a report on UAVs/drones and robotics for T&D applications. While I expect the companies manufacturing UAVs and related sensor technologies to do extremely well, I also anticipate that the complex analytics software companies analyzing streaming visual and thermal data, as well as the inspection services companies, will benefit. Look for my continued discussions about emerging technologies across the global T&D landscape in upcoming blogs and reports.


The Clean Power Plan Final Rule: A Boon for Energy Efficiency

— August 10, 2015

This week, the Obama administration and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released the Clean Power Plan Final Rule. The EPA moves this first nationwide greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction policy forward under the authority of the Clean Air Act section 111(d) and establishes CO2 emissions guidelines for existing fossil fuel-fired power plants. In order to achieve the estimated 32% reduction in GHG emissions by 2030 (from a 2005 baseline), each state will need to implement a formal compliance plan. So how will the Clean Power Plan (CPP) trickle down to the buildings segment?

Benefits of Energy Efficiency

The need for flexibility and inclusion of cost-effective solutions in order to meet the reduction target was a paramount message that emerged from the 4.3 million comments received during the rule-making process. As a result, the final rule enables states to leverage the most cost-effective option, energy efficiency, as a means of compliance. In fact, a 2014 Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory study found that the average total cost of saved electricity through utility demand-side management (DSM) programs was less than $0.05 per kWh. In another 2014 study, the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE) estimated the levelized cost of electricity generation options and also concluded the benefits of energy efficiency from an economic standpoint, as illustrated in the figure below.

Levelized Costs of Electricity Resource Options

Casey Blog(Source: American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy)

Utilities have recognized the benefits of energy efficiency in achieving GHG reduction targets. In California, for example, the state investor-owned utilities (IOUs) have long offered customer incentives to improve building efficiency. The benefits have made a mark, and even in light of a federal mandate from the CPP, Pacific Gas and Electric’s (PG&E’s) CEO expressed the company’s support of moving toward a lower carbon energy future with the statement: “I congratulate the Administration on finalizing the Clean Power Plan rule and greatly appreciate the significant outreach and engagement with our sector … It is expected that this first-ever national program to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the power sector will advance investments in clean energy technologies throughout the country and provide tremendous environmental benefit.”

Regulatory Compliance and Opportunities

The Clean Energy Incentive Program is a critical element of flexibility under the CPP that enables states to award early action emissions rate credits (ERCs) and allowances to eligible demand-side energy efficiency projects that reduce end-use energy demand in 2020 and/or 2021 for those projects implemented after September 6, 2018. The goal is to accelerate activity in the early stages of the regulatory compliance period.

In the end, there are huge opportunities for energy efficiency in buildings. Demand-side energy efficiency projects implemented in low-income communities, for example, will receive 2 credits for 1 MWh of avoided electricity production, as the EPA will match each credit offered by the state. The door will open to much broader opportunities across the building sectors. It can even be stipulated that the momentum will accelerate the adoption of intelligent building solutions, including building energy management systems, as tools for measuring performance baselines and automated measurement and verification.


Security Flaws Are Safety Issues, and They Need to Be Fixed

— August 7, 2015

Connected vehicles hold tremendous potential for improving road safety while simultaneously reducing energy consumption and road congestion through data sharing over the next 10–15 years. Unfortunately, that potential may never be realized unless there is a dramatic change in the way automakers and suppliers handle cyber security. The recently revealed security vulnerability in Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA) products with Uconnect telematics systems demonstrates some of the flaws in the current landscape. recently ran a report highlighting a flaw in the Uconnect telematics system discovered by noted white hat security researchers Charlie Miller and Chris Valasek. The pair worked out how to remotely connect to the vehicle’s cellular modem, a key component of Uconnect and all other telematics systems. From there, they were able to access a port in the vehicle network that provided entry to vehicle control systems, including steering, braking, and other functions. The article noted that Miller and Valasek notified FCA and waited until a fix was developed before publicly disclosing the flaw. So far, so good.

A Bloomberg Business story claims that FCA was actually notified of the vulnerability in January 2014 and waited a full 18 months before notifying the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). However, according to FCA spokesman Eric Mayne, “Prior to last month (July 2015), the precise means of manipulating a vehicle as demonstrated for the media was not known.” FCA notified NHTSA, developed a fix to eliminate the attack vector, and subsequently issued a recall for 1.4 million vehicles. Despite determining that the vulnerability didn’t constitute a safety defect according to current regulations, FCA and NHTSA decided to conduct the campaign as a recall to protect customers.

Potential Safety Defects

Cyber-attacks on banks and retailers can be annoying and costly, but they are unlikely to ever prove life-threatening. All potential automotive cyber security flaws should be treated as potential safety defects until proven otherwise. While the information FCA officials had in early 2014 may not have represented a safety defect, we need a standard mechanism for reporting and tracking potential vulnerabilities.

Navigant Research’s Connected Vehicles report projects that by 2025, 80%–90% of new vehicles in North America and Western Europe will be equipped with vehicle-to-external (V2X) communications technology, a market with potential revenue of more than $36 billion globally. Automakers and suppliers have claimed that they take security seriously, but with few exceptions—notably Tesla Motors, and to a lesser degree, Hyundai— they seem more intent on keeping information out of the public eye.

General Motors (GM) in particular joined John Deere earlier this year to push for protection of their vehicle software under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). GM has not publicly stated why they were seeking protection, but since the DMCA prohibits tampering with or removing protections from software, it seems likely that at least part of the rationale is to keep researchers from legally investigating these systems.

Design for Security

If automakers and suppliers continue to suppress information about automotive cyber security, they will erode both consumer and regulatory confidence in connected vehicles. Software security is an extremely difficult problem, especially for networked systems. It’s best to design the architecture for security from the start rather than patching it in later. However, product development lead times last 3–5 years or more, and legacy systems need to be protected as well.

Automakers need to acknowledge that cyber security vulnerabilities are indeed genuine safety issues now, and they need to be open to both responsible disclosure and prompt updates. If not, we are at serious risk of missing out on the benefits of both connectivity and increasing levels of vehicle automation.


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